Antediluvianism

J.M. Roberts

  • Europe: Privilege and Protest 1730-1789 by Olwen Hufton
    Fontana, 398 pp, £2.50, May 1980, ISBN 0 00 636109 9

1789, alas, is the great year of the 18th century. That is one of the problems in characterising the age: whenever it is thought to begin – in 1700, or with the death of Louis XIV in 1714, or in 1730 as Professor Hufton has had to accept for her new book – we always seem to finish up at the Tennis Court or the Bastille. There is overwhelming pressure to see the century as an age before the deluge, everything in it being placed and scrutinised in the light of the great revolution to come.

Even at the time, people began to see things in this way. Condorcet’s famous essay – written under the Revolution – is one marker. But the accepted view achieved its settled form in the 19th century. For good or ill, it then came to be agreed that what mattered – indeed, all that mattered – in the decades before 1789 was what could be connected with the Revolution. The 18th century was seen in terms of a mounting tide of liberalism; despotism was the enemy. The history of its ideas revealed it to be the second great phase (the Reformation was the first) of European history as the story of liberty, demonstrating the development of a critical, analytical mode of thought which gnawed away the foundations of certainty and prepared men for the onrush of intellectual freedom. And this is probably still the way most of us see it. It is a Whig view, full of assumptions about the inevitability of progress and the signs by which progress could be recognised. Only twenty years or so ago, it received concentrated expression once again in a book with the revealing title The Age of the Democratic Revolution.

Some important truths were mixed up with these ideas, as well as much that was skewed, disproportioned and downright anachronistic. They provided a framework for historical study which has only finally broken down in the last couple of decades. Every schoolboy now knows about an ‘early modern’ era which has a quite different appearance from the 16th and 17th centuries sketched by (say) the old Cambridge Modern History. The old view of the 18th century has lasted longer. What is more, it always nurtured scholarly achievement. Boring as many students and teachers now find them, the great virtuosos of diplomatic history who unravelled le secret du roi, the Diplomatic Revolution or the Partitions of Poland wrote books of still almost unshakable authority. Some of them attacked the problems of commercial relations which increasingly shaped international affairs, incidentally uncovering much economic history. But such achievements, though real, produced at best deep penetration on narrow fronts. Too much in other sectors was left unattacked and even unreconnoitred.

This was largely because the traditional perspective was preoccupied with states and the relations between them (especially if they had some obvious relation to later questions of nationalism), and it was coloured by moralism: points were awarded to ‘winners’, those who somehow could be seen to be on the side of the causes which were presumed to triumph in 1789 (our sophisticated doubts about the Revolution being ‘victorious’ in any sense were unknown even a couple of decades ago). ‘Losers’ (the Papacy, rulers who failed to carry out reforms, social conservatives with uncomprehended points of view) got bad marks and less attention. The received notion of the 18th century, in fact, was a typical product of the triumphant progressive culture of the 19th century. Free trade, reform and the printing press were good: tradition, corporatism and the last enchantments of the Middle Ages were, unless strictly confined to historical novels and museums, bad.

Thus the view from the age of calculators and sophisters: a radically anachronistic one. Historians steadily became aware of how much was left out in such a picture. This was not merely a matter of discovering what remained to be done in the history of social practice, taste, economic life, mentality – the most obvious areas requiring remedial effort. It was also a matter of a new sensibility. In social terms, for instance, the old assumptions simply failed to take account of the weight or nature of a past still living in the 18th century. Worm-eaten though they might be in many places, in others the Middle Ages were still going strong in 1789. Serfdom, patrimonial jurisdiction, the economic self-sufficiency of the estate centred on the great house were still realities determining the whole tone of society over huge tracts of Eastern and Central Europe. Even in what we have learned carelessly to call ‘advanced’ countries (the adjective itself is a monument to the conventional view), there were big pockets where the same was true. Religious history, again, was trapped in stereotypes. It has had to be rethought so as to give due weight to the daily consciousness of the supernatural, to habit and superstition, and less to the depressing story of a Papacy towards whose disappearance Voltaire looked forward. ‘How many divisions has the Pope?’ was, after all, a question which got an answer from the Sanfedists of Calabria in 1799 and the Spanish peasants who followed their priests against the infidel French in 1808. For all the evidence of the collapse of pastoral care in some places and anti-clericalism in others, and for all the first hints of contraceptive practice so lovingly culled by demographic historians, most Europeans in 1789 still believed in God, in one way or another, and looked to the parish priest to tell them what He wanted. This was as important as the Enlightenment’s foundation of modern anti-clericalism.

It was a century so unmodern that most Europeans then enjoyed a standard of living less like our own than like that of the non-European world today. (Modern history only really begins when you feel sure there will always be food tomorrow.) What is more, millions of Europeans became worse off as the century wore on. The economy was not modern, despite a large and growing flow of international trade and the invention of life assurance and cheques. Europe was still a vast anthology of local economies in which agriculture was overwhelmingly predominant. In most countries, modern politics had not been envisaged; and the idea of legitimate political conflict still awaited distinction from subversion. And so one could go on. The 18th century is exotic and remote. To emphasise its ‘progressive’ side distorts the truth.

Finally, the traditional view of Europe in this age usually left out England and gave disproportionate weight to France. Both are understandable. All the rhythms of English history seem different; whatever happened in Scotland, an English ‘Enlightenment’, in the same sense as a European one, is hard to discern; England was uniquely successful, lucky, or both, in balancing population growth and food supply, and public political debate was an accepted activity in this country, even if ‘His Majesty’s loyal Opposition’ was a term which had not yet been coined. But leaving England out leaves much European history lopsided. As for France, she was, for most of the 18th century, the most powerful state in Europe, and, for all of it, in Western Europe. She set models of kingship, administration and diplomacy to which rulers elsewhere looked with admiration. French was the language of literate men everywhere and the vehicle of Enlightenment. What is more, all historians knew French, and France, a much-administered country, had copious and accessible archives. The results were bound to be a somewhat Gallocentric – or perhaps Western European – view of the 18th century.

Steadily, in the last couple of decades, historians have been turning away from once fashionable subjects to neglected areas. The English contribution to this has been small in quantity, so insular is our historical world at present, but impressive in quality. Professor Hufton is outstanding among our scholars who have been taking part in this work of discovery.

New knowledge has now made the need for a new synthesis overwhelming. We need a new general frame in which to see the last decades of the Ancien Régime: the 18th century is looking for its Braudel. It was not Professor Hufton’s aim – or duty – to supply that need, though (or, at least, not to do so on the Braudelian scale). Europe: Privilege and Protest 1730-1789 is one of a successful series of textbooks, the ‘Fontana History of Europe’, in which several distinguished volumes have already been published. Such a form imposes constraints, above all of length, but also of design. It places a premium on comprehensiveness and utility; a textbook should contain a lot of information, and that in a systematic and easily recoverable form. This does not leave much room for large-scale reconstruction. Nevertheless, Professor Hufton has seized the opportunity to sketch the foundations of a new interpretation of the century which takes account both of the defects of the old view and of the new knowledge which research has made available. The result is not long enough to be the definitive synthesis of the present state of scholarship, but it is an integrated view set out by a historian of great learning, acumen and distinction. No one teaching or learning about the 18th century should neglect it.

At first sight, Professor Hufton has kept much of the traditional framework. About two-thirds of the book is organised geographically and within that more or less state by state. Broadly, too, the exposition of these sections is chronological. The first part of the book, though, is a long analytical account of social and economic development, rich with information, but with general truths emerging clearly from the welter of facts. This is something of a tour de force of compression. Other analytical chapters in the introductory section discuss the world of privilege, the movement of ideas, and military and diplomatic developments. The somewhat conventional appearance, too, turns out to be misleading. The well-defined individual chapters take up general and interconnecting themes in the context of particular countries, but stereotypes go down like ninepins. The basis of arguments for ‘democratic’ or ‘aristocratic’ ages of revolution is riddled by Professor Hufton, who bangs away with the ammunition provided by evidence of the differences between claims made in different places. That old text-book warhorse, Enlightened Despotism, is shown up for the pantomime creature it is: it was always a matter of specific responses to specialised problems within cultural settings which might, or might not, reflect in some measure the law-maker’s acceptance of natural law, humanitarian or simply utilitarian ideas.

Scepticism about nomenclature which has outlived its value (or never had much) is accompanied by striking revaluations. The old prize-giving approach is set aside. It is salutary to be reminded that the most important thing about the Habsburg Empire in this age is that, for all the plans to dismember it, outside the Austrian Netherlands (which it had only recently acquired) it survived: this was the real achievement by which the rulers of the empire should be judged rather than by their capacity, or lack of it, to realise ‘reforms’. Similarly, the role of the French parlements is presented in a way which takes account of the constitutional tasks the parlementaires thought they should be carrying out, and not in the light of an anachronistic assumption that they should have been enthusiastically acquiescing in the reform of the tax system (whose appalling complexities are brilliantly summarised in the shortest space which can do them justice).

Here, then, is much culled from up-to-date research which will be fresh to many readers. As for new integrating themes, the two indicated in the title – the omnipresence and accepted nature of privilege, and the rise and intensification of all sorts of protests – are not perhaps the most striking, though useful. (They seemed to have appealed differently to the two publishers of this book: Fontana’s cover shows a salon no doubt full of the privileged, while the publisher of the hardback version has put on its dust-jacket a drawing ‘after’ a 19th-century painting of an unpleasant encounter between two aristos and a mob led by someone who must be Madame Defarge herself.) The cohesiveness which emerges in reading the book is more evident in the greater weight given to Eastern Europe and in such themes as the very slow advance of economic improvement or the appalling cost to governments of war and the consequent pressures upon them towards innovation. The 1760s, for instance, were hard both for winners and for losers of the Seven Years’ War; they were hard even for the United Kingdom, which lost America through attempts to put its financial house in order.

Time and again, there are striking judgments and perceptions to jolt a reader out of preconceptions: it is a help, for instance, to be reminded of the tiny coercive powers actually available to support public order, even in France where there were fewer than five thousand men to police 24 million (it was the Revolution which really gave the state power), of the degree to which most townsmen were privileged by comparison with countrymen, and of the remarkable achievements of many of the clergy. Two or three excellent pages on that obscure subject, the Holy Roman Empire, stick in the mind. Often one wishes Professor Hufton had more space. It is hard to see what could be spared from what has been given to us, but there are important nuances for which she has no room (the contribution of Orthodoxy to the special nature of Tsarist rule, for example) and some things on which there is nothing to be found in these pages: art, for instance, which is always very difficult to handle in a summary account (Mozart, Richardson, Alfieri – to pick names at random – are not mentioned). The irrational side of the age, too, ought to be brought into the balance if we are to get the true feel of it; Professor Hufton picks up the convulsionnaires of St Médard, but not Mesmer or mystical freemasonry (or, for that matter, freemasonry as a whole, though in sheer numbers it was the craze of the century). Science and technology, too, have had to be set aside. This may be thought to be more questionable, for though the immediate impact of technological change was small (yet Norman cahiers of 1789 grumbled bitterly about English textile machinery), those hints of the future which are discernible surely require comment. Why was the basic technology of steam power, the first major addition to mankind’s capacity to tap natural energy resources since the invention of the windmill, largely perfected at this time? Another contemporary craze was electricity: it may have made no difference to communications by 1789, but was to have enormous (revolutionary?) effects within another half-century. By 1789, too, we have had the first air travel and the first essays in submarine warfare.

The Fontana series separates English history from Continental, but Professor Hufton has admirably resisted the full rigour of this convention. Her pages are studded with apt comparisons with these islands and telling cross-references. She is certainly not blinkered by a narrowly Continental view. Given this, it seems a pity that she did not say more about the importance of her period to European history in its widest sense, or about its place in the history of the world. This era witnessed almost the last stage in the preparation for the domination of the world by European civilisation which we now take for granted. At the most elementary level, the 18th century contributed to this by a take-off into uninterrupted population growth which, for nearly two centuries, gave Europe a larger share than hitherto of the world’s total manpower. This not only made her a more effective competitor: it enabled her to spawn new countries of European stock overseas. Then there is the world impact of Europe’s wars. Macaulay implied that it was shocking that red men scalped one another beside the Great Lakes so that a European monarch could despoil a neighbour of a province he had sworn to defend, but this is hardly the main point. The most important outcome of Europe’s quarrels was that English-speakers would dominate the whole North American continent and that India would be the centrepiece of the last British Empire. The injection of science into the common culture of educated men, the diffusion of a faith in progress and a belief in secularised versions of the moral precepts of Christianity gave European culture its last historic shove towards a world-making role. The age of ‘westernising’ was about to begin: it is still, to a remarkable degree, the story of the diffusion of 18th-century ideas – nationalists all over Africa and Asia who strive to resurrect traditional costume obey, without knowing it, Rousseau’s recommendations to the youth of Poland.

Such themes could hardly be explored in depth in a book of this length, but we need to place 18th-century Europe in a world about to Europeanise and be Europeanised in order to understand it. Without such a perspective, the story will still tend to swing towards 1789. Professor Hufton’s concluding chapter contains an acute discussion of how it was that the crisis of that year could not be surmounted as earlier crises had been, and still leaves the impression that this is what the century is really about. She is admirably sceptical about the claim that 1789 changed very much for most people: the greatest change the Revolution brought was in the growth of state power and it is hard, she thinks, to point to any place where anything can be seen to have changed for the better – a conclusion which will not surprise admirers who have read her compelling studies on the life of the French poor and of the fate of one small town, Bayeux, in the later 18th century. There were indeed to be many continuities right across the superficial rupture of the Revolution in France (and more still elsewhere). All the more reason to remember that what was happening across the oceans and in the big eastern plains may have mattered more to the future than what went on at Versailles. But Professor Hufton’s close focus has dissolved outdated certainties about perspective, and it would be unreasonable to ask much more of such a rich and provoking book (we, and she, though, could reasonably ask for better printing in a hardback so highly priced). ‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times’: like most times, in fact, as our great national novelist went on to point out, and, like them, much more muddled than we like to think.